It’s no secret, though it’s often forgotten, that the heyday of art film — roughly speaking, the ’50s through the ’70s — depended, to a much larger degree than we may like to think, on the promise of erotic adventurousness, the kind that Hollywood couldn’t hope to match. I don’t mean to say that the European and Asian films that explored sexuality, sometimes the outer limits of sexuality, were glorified porn. It’s not just that we saw more flesh in them; it’s that we saw more of the internal experience that flesh is really about. Yet one of the prime reasons that art films moved further and further away from the cultural center is that the world ultimately caught up with them sexually, and so we no longer needed filmmakers to explore eroticism in a way that was literally pushing our personal boundaries. For several decades, sex was art film’s revolutionary calling card, its vital pulse. Now it’s just another piece of the landscape.
Yet that doesn’t mean that there aren’t new issues of sexuality that art films aren’t uniquely equipped to explore. Take François Ozon’s Young & Beautiful, which just premiered at Cannes. It’s the story of Isabelle (Marine Vacth), who’s your basic blasé 17-year-old Paris bourgeois princess, except that when she loses her virginity (in a momentary summer fling with a hunky German dude), she feels nothing, and this propels her to begin the fall school season by hiring herself out as a high-end prostitute. She designs her own Web site, with alluring cell-phone photos, and meets men after school, in hotels or in their cars, calling herself Léa and wearing a secretary’s skirt, respectable heels, and lipstick that makes her look maybe 20 years old (until she takes off her clothes, at which point it’s clear that she’s a skinny kid), and charging 300 Euros for them to sleep with her. Is she doing it for the money? For the forbidden thrill? To get back at her nagging — though hardly unloving — mother? Or because she’s damaged inside and is acting our her self-hatred by letting scuzzy middle-aged men have their way with her?
The answer is all of the above, and also none of the above. Ozon plots out Isabelle’s moves and actions very carefully and convincingly, but he refrains from explaining her. Not because he’s anti-psychology, or because he doesn’t want the movie to be plausible. Rather, he’s implicitly creating an almost journalistic drama of our time, a look at how a high school girl — in France, but it could be America, too — who has everything, but who has been encouraged, by the karma of the world around her, to measure her worth in coldly consumerist terms might choose, not out of necessity but out of curiosity, to sell herself by degrading herself. Isabelle suggests an Internet-baby version of Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour (whose attraction to prostitution also wasn’t “explained”). If anything, though, she’s even more like Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris, only without a Marlon Brando. She’s tangoing to her own narcissism.
The sex scenes are fairly graphic, in a clinical sort of way, and that works for the movie; it’s not covering anything up. Marina Vacth is a gorgeous young actress, but she looks so much like a Euro-pouty Kristen Stewart fashion model that, at first, I feared she’d fall into that tradition of frozen-faced French ingenues who pass off their lack of expression as “mystery.” But Vacth makes Isabelle wary and fascinating. When she begins to see Georges (Johan Leyson), a regular who must be 50 years older than she is, though he’s a lean, hawk-nosed charmer, their ambiguous connection draws you in, and so does what happens to Georges. Isabelle’s actions, throughout the film, are fairly indefensible; even after she’s found out, her lack of remorse about what she’s been up to is scary. Yet Young & Beautiful is haunted by the question that it never comes out and answers: Why would a girl like this do this? We have to come up with our own answers, but the movie — this is Ozon’s detached achievement — supplies all the material that we need to do so. This level of sexual frankness is no longer shocking, or maybe even noteworthy. (It’s all over HBO.) Yet Ozon, in his way, does take us back. He has made a movie that the Louis Malle of Lacombe, Lucien, or the Truffaut of The 400 Blows, would have appreciated, an explicit look at how our humanity gets lost.
* * * *
Back in 1980, when William Friedkin was fighting his way through thickets of controversy to make Cruising, his seamy voyeuristic gay-underworld S&M exploitation thriller, the gay men who protested the film’s existence and branded it as homophobic were right to do so. They sensed, correctly, that the steely, bullying Friedkin was no friend of theirs, and that his outsider’s coldly sensational vision of the leather-bar underground was the wrong portrait of gay life at the wrong time. It fitted all too snugly into an America that was more than willing to view gay experience in general as “dark” and forbidden and mired in hellfire sin.
That said, the notion of setting a queasy homicide thriller in a place where men cruise for anonymous and even dangerous sex was, at least in the abstract, a good idea for a movie. And now, more than 30 years later, the French director Alain Guiraudie has done a true insider’s variation on Friedkin’s sordid premise with Stranger by the Lake, a thriller set entirely on a rocky stretch of beach and its adjoining woods, where French gay men come to sunbathe and cruise. The central character, Franck, is played by Pierre Deladonchamps, who looks like a hunkier version of the young Roddy McDowall. He’s a guy who’s hungry for sex, but not with just anybody. He wants to be transported, carried away with desire, moved to the place where unbridled pleasure melts into love. And that’s why he can’t stop himself from going after Michel (Christophe Paou), a gorgeous sporty dude in a Tom Selleck mustache (trust me: this looks a lot less dated on a French guy), even after he sees Michel drown his latest lover simply because he wants to be rid of him.
Stranger by the Lake is voyeuristic, all right, but in a way that evokes the Hitchcock of Rear Window more than it does the Friedkin of Cruising. The movie shows us men sprawled naked on the beach with their junk hanging out, to the point that we get as used to it as they are, and it lingers on random erotic encounters, the camera peering through the dense piny woods, portraying the hookups without judgment and often with a casual explicitness that’s attuned to just how far mainstream audiences have come (though the movie may have to be trimmed of a few hardcore shots if it wants to open in the U.S.). Guiraudie clearly knows this world and is able to depict it in all its rituals and codes, its clandestine abandon, even its comedy (the guy who wants to stand around and watch everyone as he fondles himself is portrayed not as a “perv” but as a lost imp).
Little by little, we get to know the very geography of this cruising spot, which is out in the open and hidden at the same time. Franck befriends a lonely, pudgy, middle-aged fellow who’s always sitting by himself with his belly hanging out (he’s played by the terrific Patrick D’assumçao, who looks and acts like the dumpy brother of Gérard Depardieu), and there’s a fun police inspector — a terse string-bean of a guy who looks at these cruisers with a seen-it-all sympathy. The weak link in Stranger by the Lake is Franck’s passive insistence on hiding Michel’s crime; it’s not, in the end, believable. And that’s why the movie, for all its intrigue and skill, lacks that full Hitchcockian string-tightening finesse. But when you emerge from it, you know that you’ve been somewhere raw and real.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes: